What Makes a Whiskey Bourbon? (And Other Bourbon FAQs)

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Answers to the most common bourbon queries.

What makes a whiskey bourbon?
The law. While knocking back a dram of bourbon is a decidedly carefree exercise, making it is exceedingly technical and requires that the whiskey meet a rigid set of criteria. The Federal Standards of Identity for Bourbon stipulate what is and what isn't bourbon. For a whiskey to call itself bourbon, its mash, the mixture of grains from which the product is distilled, must contain at least 51% corn. (The rest of the mash is usually filled out with malted barley and either rye or wheat.) The mash must be distilled at 160 proof or less, put into the barrel at 125 proof or less, and it must not contain any additives. The distillate must be aged in a new charred oak barrel. (Most often these barrels are white oak, but they can be any variety of oak.) If you distill a whiskey in your kitchen that meets all of these standards, congrats, you've made bourbon. Also, you've broken the law; the ATF is probably outside your house right now.

Things get a bit more complicated than that, though. If you want to call your bourbon "straight bourbon," you have to age it for at least two years in the barrel. If you age it for less than four years, you have to put an age statement somewhere on the bottle telling folks just how long you aged it. Thus, when you pick up a bottle of straight bourbon that doesn't explicitly say how old it is (think Jim Beam white label), you're probably getting sauce that's at least four years old, but probably not much older.

Bourbon can only be made in Kentucky, right?
Nope, but it's a common misconception. "Kentucky straight bourbon" can only be made in the Bluegrass State, but a handful of other bourbon distilleries are sprinkled around the country. Among them, Tuthilltown Spirits in New York makes its own Hudson Baby Bourbon, which is aged for just three months, and A. Smith Bowman Distillery of Virginia makes, among other products, a yummy 90-proof small batch bourbon under its Virginia Gentleman label. As long as it meets the base criteria to be bourbon, it's bourbon, no matter where it's produced.

Who invented bourbon?
That's a good question, but it's only got a vague answer. Elijah Craig is generally credited as the "inventor" of bourbon for coming up with the innovation of aging corn whiskey in a charred oak barrel in 1789. (The story is deliciously ironic because Craig was a Baptist minister by day.) But historical facts to support this story are hard to come by. There were corn whiskey distilleries in Kentucky prior to 1789, and in truth Craig was probably just one of many distillers who helped transform fiery, unaged corn moonshine into what we now know as bourbon. Craig, however, got the lasting recognition; Heaven Hill markets two nice, reasonably priced single-barrel bourbons under his name.

What's all the worry about age?
Like other whiskey, bourbon tends to improve with more time spent in the barrel. As temperatures fluctuate, the whiskey is forced into and out of the barrel's wood, which imparts vanilla-like flavors and makes the whiskey more complex. Additionally, the layer of charred wood inside the barrel helps give the whiskey its dark brown color. Of course, this process can't go on forever; evaporation means that there's less whiskey left in the aging barrel each year (the missing portion is known as the "angels' share"), so eventually the barrel will be empty. Moreover, if bourbon spends too much time in the barrel, it will often take on an unpleasant, woody taste that makes it undrinkable. The trick is to figure out exactly when a barrel has matured to perfection and not let it age any longer. There's certainly no "older is always better" rule, though; younger whiskeys can be quite enjoyable and are generally much easier on your wallet.

What's a single-barrel bourbon?
When distillers are making regular bourbon, they go to their rickhouses, the buildings where the aging whiskey is stored, and pull out a bunch of barrels. These barrels are then dumped together in giant tanks and mixed until they fit the flavor profile of the bourbon they're being bottled as. Each barrel tastes slightly different due to subtle differences in the wood, location where it was aged in the rickhouse, its age, etc. However, you can blend hundreds of them together to get a relatively consistent flavor for each batch of bourbon. This large-scale mingling process is why Jim Beam white label always tastes like Jim Beam white label.

Single-barrel bourbons, on the other hand, don't get blended at all. The master distiller picks out a particularly tasty barrel from the rickhouse, filters it, cuts it with water to get it to the correct proof, and it goes into the bottle. Because of each barrel's little idiosyncrasies, each bottle you pick up is bound to have unique flavors of its own. Bourbon enthusiasts like these single-barrel bottles partially because of these little variations and pay a premium for them. Elmer T. Lee, master distiller of Ancient Age (now Buffalo Trace), helped start this whole craze with the introduction of Blanton's in 1984. For his efforts, Buffalo Trace now markets a single-barrel bourbon named after Lee; in my opinion it's the best bourbon you can get for under $30.

Then what about small-batch bourbon?
Small-batch bourbon, on the other hand, doesn't have to live up to such a specific standard. With a single barrel, you know you're getting whiskey from a single barrel. With a small batch, you know you're getting whiskey from a batch that's small. What's small? Good question, but it's one nobody can answer. "Small batch" is really more of a nebulous marketing term than an indicator of quality. Which isn't to say that small-batch bourbons can't be quite good; many of them are among the best tipples you'll taste. Sticking the term on a label is just a clever way to make you think, "Hey, the batches are small! This must be a premium product!"

If the barrels can only be used once, what happens to them?
As noted above, bourbon has to be put into a new charred oak barrel for aging. Once the barrel's emptied, it's no good for aging bourbon. However, it can still be useful for aging other spirits. Lots of the used cooperage ends up in Scotland, where it's popular for aging scotch. Sherry casks were previously popular for aging scotch, but their strong flavors and high prices have made bourbon cooperage the most popular casks at many distilleries. Bourbon barrels have also become popular for aging certain types of microbrews, particularly stouts. Other used barrels are employed to age non-bourbon "Kentucky whiskey" like the version of Early Times sold in the American market. Or, if you like, you can just buy one to keep in your house as a 53-gallon conversation piece. (Want one? Try this site.)

Busch Is Donating Three Months’ Worth of Beer to People Who Adopt or Foster Shelter Dogs During the Coronavirus Pandemic

This dog can turn a foster home into a forever home with one slobbery smile.
This dog can turn a foster home into a forever home with one slobbery smile.
Nataba/iStock via Getty Images

If getting to play with a happy, lovable pup isn’t already enough of an incentive to foster or adopt a shelter dog, Busch is throwing in a bonus—three months’ worth of free beer.

CNN reports that the “Foster a Dog, Get Busch” deal is available to the first 500 people who foster or adopt from Midwest Animal Rescue & Services (MARS) in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Fostering is free, and adoption costs between $200 and $600 (which covers all required vetting services, including deworming, vaccines, spaying or neutering, and more).

The offer is meant to encourage folks to help animals in need at a time when many shelters are canceling adoption events or temporarily shutting down to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. According to People, Busch is donating an additional $25,000 to MARS to keep the animals safe and cared for.

“During these uncertain and lonelier times, people need an escape: cue the cute puppy memes and photos,” a Busch spokesperson told People. “But as much as we need those cute puppy pics to help get us through social distancing, it’s actually them who need us.”

If you’re interested in hanging out with a MARS rescue and a refreshing bottle of Busch, you can apply to foster a dog here. Once you’ve finished the process and received a confirmation email from the shelter, you should send a screenshot of that email to Busch through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram before April 25. (Since only the first 500 people will be able to claim your prize, we recommend passing along that confirmation email as soon as you get it.) Busch will respond to winners via social media and send them each a prepaid debit card for $100.

You can take Busch’s advice and use it to buy a hefty supply of alcohol, or you can spend it on something else that’ll help pass the time during self-isolation—like a pop culture subscription box, or products for an indoor garden.

[h/t CNN]

10 Things You Can Lift Instead of Dumbbells at Home

This Corgi puppy is the cuddliest dumbbell we ever did see.
This Corgi puppy is the cuddliest dumbbell we ever did see.
Tatomm/iStock via Getty Images

Right now, the prospect of handling dumbbells that have been touched by any number of strangers in your neighborhood gym might not seem very appealing—that is, if your gym is still open. For those of you who don’t want to buy your own dumbbells (or simply can’t find a store that has them in stock), we’re here to help you make do with what you might already have at home.

A six-pack of 12-ounce cans of beer weighs about 5 pounds, which is perfect for novice lifters who love to crack open a cold one as a reward for working out. Other options for people who usually reach for 5-pound dumbbells include a full ream of printer paper, a bag of all-purpose flour, and a regular red brick.

Seasoned bench-pressers without an at-home gym set up in their garage might still find some useful equipment in there—a spare tire, for example, weighs about 25 pounds. And it’ll take you more than a little muscle to do a few reps with your treasured collection of hardcover Harry Potter books, which weighs 20 pounds. Speaking of books, the third edition of the Oxford American Dictionary comes in around 7 pounds, but you can always stack it with some other heavy volumes to hit your ideal lifting weight.

Pets can help you reach your exercise goals, too, if they have the right temperament. Your cat probably weighs around 10 pounds, and a grown male golden retriever is likely between 65 and 75 pounds. Are you wondering if this is a good excuse to adopt a pet? The answer is yes.

See our top 10 makeshift dumbbells below, and pick out a movie to watch while you lift here.

  1. A standard-sized brick // 4.2 pounds
  1. A six-pack of canned beer // 5 pounds
  1. A ream of printer paper // 5 pounds
  1. A bag of all-purpose flour // 5 pounds
  1. The Oxford American Dictionary, Third Edition // 7 pounds
  1. A gallon of milk // 8.6 pounds
  1. A cat // 10 pounds
  1. A bag of dry dog food // 15 pounds
  1. A hardcover box set of Harry Potter books // 20 pounds
  1. A new car tire // 25 pounds

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